Linguistics & Nominalising Languages
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford
13 Sep 2000


[Moonhawk]
Ah -- a real discussion as we get ready to face (N->V?) new students! ;-) Sorry for the length, but this is more than sound-bites.
Benji writes:

As always I enjoyed and was stimulated by Monnhawk's response to Ahmad Lofti's questions about the cultural-conceptual (and perhaps cognitive) implications of the differences between languages that favor nouns or verbs as grammatical means of expression. However, I think he held back unduly in some cases in order to make his own points. Thus, where Ahmad observes:

[Ahmad:] Indo-European languages are known to have a strong tendency to nominalise: the speakers of such languages hunt for 'things' in their roundabout. Then people catch 'a cold' (they don't simply 'cold' as they cough or sneeze). You don't 'camera'. Instead, you take 'a picture' by 'your camera'. And right now, you are reading your messages on LINGUIST. They're not 'LINGUISTing you', nor you 'LINGUISTing' anything or anyone.
Moonhawk reponds:
[Moonhawk:] These are excellent examples, though they could certainly be countered by a plethora of counterexamples.
No doubt he had in mind such verbs as "photograph".
[Moonhawk]
You're too kind, bravely ignoring my penchant for generalizing when it suits me without having specific examples firmly in mind -- kinda my own linguistic intuition. :-(
[Benji]
It is unclear what semantic constraints English has on the conversion of nouns to verbs. Thus, there appears to be nothing in English grammar to preclude 'camera'-ing, 'cold'-ing or even "LINGUIST"-ing.
[Moonhawk]
SO true! In my class on "Metaphors of Dis-Easing and Healing" (and my article on "God is not a noun in Native America") I discuss how changing the "diseases" to "dis-easing" in our talking, tho sounding weird, can help change our consciousness around our own participation in our bodily proccessing: I'm "colding, fevering, stomachaching, measelsing, chicken-poxing, acneing, cancering, AIDSing, ALSing," etc. (Call that man a doctor!) And I certainly use "languaging" a lot.

In point of fact, as my wife must seemingly *constantly* remind me, in English we can turn nearly every verb into a noun AND VICE VERSA. (Actually, she doesn't say it in such a reifying way implying that they *are* nouns or verbs outside of use.) I.e., that English is incredibly flexible in this way. As with her gentle nudgings, I respect yours.

[Benji]
Conversely, speakers can have "a cough" and maybe even "the sneezes". It is not, then, anything within the grammar of English itself that prevents the unattested examples or constructs, only how speakers conventionally use that grammar -- which does not detract from the interest of the question. It just puts the question in a different perspective -- and perhaps biases the answer toward the culture determining how the language is used, if that -- rather than the (structure of the) language straitjacketing the culture.
[Moonhawk]
You'll notice from the past that I reject the unnatural splitting of the language/culture dynamic from the git-go; an unfortunate relic of the autonomous linguistics majority, in my opinion. The more interesting question involves the relationship between that L/C dynamic and knowing.
[Benji]
Ahamd continues:
[Ahmad:] Linguistic determinism presumably wants us to approach such a tendency as a part of our world view: nouns are typically more permanent and less dynamic than verbs. Then a nominalising language encourages one to view the world as more static and less transient than what it actually is.
Moonhawk's response to the main point is:
[Moonhawk:] As to the main point re: nouns being more static than verbs -- I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'd go farther: linguistic societies (language/- culture dynamics) that excessively nounify are after control by fear.
Here Moonhawk lets pass an inaccurate stereotype of what a noun is (cf. a noun is the name of a person, place or thing).
[Moonhawk]
Actually, no. Referring obliquely to my "Nouns are snapshots of verbs" comment made elsewhere, it's more like a general summation of my experiences with Algonkian, Navajo, Sahaptin and other speakers who can break down any "word" into movement/relationship roots.

For instance in Sahaptin (Nez Perce/Yakima -- a people with whom Sapir had a close relationship, staying with them for many months of the year; they even remember Whorf visiting with him one time, with an episode of dope-smoking), even something like what gets translated as "Mother Earth" is more like "gently supporting underneath mocassin [foot-covering]", according to speaker Lloyd Pinkham.

Or "iyeska" in Lakota, meaning "mixed-blood" if you're talking about someone's ancestry/culture, "translator" if about language, and "shaman" if about the sacred. But they're still talking about the underlying process of going between in each case, focusing on dancing not dancers. Now it's true you could in some sense recover the noun IF you know the context. Often, however, this is not culturally desired except for teaching purposes, then dropped.

[Benji]
Potentially, and maybe even in practice, there are at least as many nouns that refer to processes and such-like activities as to "more static" entities. English allows that by the free nominalisation of verbs by -ing, and in the Latinate vocabulary -ion and other such suffixes appended to verbs, hence "explosion", "collision", "talking" (beside "talk"), etc etc. Just how static nominalised verbs are depends largely on the context in which they are used. Certainly no conceptual or cognitive difference should be attributed to the English nominalisation "there was dancing (going on)" as a translation of the verb-al "it/there was danced" in other Germanic languages.
[Moonhawk]
And the bitch of it is, even *verb* is a noun! ;-) Only joking, since that obviously doesn't hold for me and my verbing -- damn! still a noun! ;-)
[Benji]
Similarly, the noun "something" in "something happened" does not show a tendency to REIFY, as opposed to NOMINALISE. Similarly, "WHAT happened?" answer: "it rained" or whatever.
[Moonhawk]
Point taken. But what if it's just "Rained." and "Happened."? What if there's no reification OR nominalizing in daily talk?

I remind everyone of Whorf's Hopi example of "rehpi" -- flashed! No light, lightning, or it involved (making ours look like grammatical fictions), just a bare predicate, the way we saw with "Dancing with Wolves" and "Stands With Fist" (probably better Dances-wolfing and Stands-fisting or some such); what comes after the initial (subjectless) verb looks like prepositions with object NPs in the translations, but can be just kinesthetic roots acting as infixes and suffixes in various Amerind languages.

[Benji]
If anything is more "static" than verbs in English (among other nouny languages) it is adjectives, not verbs. And even there, nothing apart from specific context of use leads hearers to suppose that adjectival qualities ascribed to whatever are permanent. Hence 'it's getting dry' as easily as 'it IS dry', and 'it's drying' (more easily than 'it has gotten dry' for 'it's (already) dry'). OK, 'it's reddening' rather than 'it's redding'. Surely that's of no concern.
[Moonhawk]
Not particularly, in the languages whose speakers I work with, since down at the root level there's no difference -- only in use.

You know what? I'm not married to the static description. It's one of degree, not absolutes, and reflects opinions of people who know both Native languages and English and feel they have to think more statically and concretely -- creating nouns by hooking up processes with contexts -- when in English. They also feel they have a different personality when thinking or speaking the two languages.

To be sure, these are the same people who associate "fear" and "control" with the English language (aka English language/culture dynamic), but maybe that's just an unfortunate side-effect of being kidnapped by our federal government as children, relocated to a boarding school far away from family, friends, and tribe, and forced to learn English and not use their Native language.

On a lighter note, my mentor Sakej Henderson came to visit me in the SF Bay area from Nova Scotia 8 years ago for about a month. When he got back home, he called me and he mentioned how before his visit he'd called together various people who were remodeling his house and they discussed in Mi'kmaq (Micmac) everything that needed getting done before he returned, but not a single thing had gotten done! He told them, "We need more NOUNS around here so we can get things done!" ;-)

[Benji]
[Moonhawk:] Eddy Izzard has an Emmy-winning bit about flags: Western Europeans would plant a flag somehwere after coming onshore and claim the land for their sovereign. The Natives would say, "What do you mean you discovered this place? We live here." And the explorer would say, "Yes, but do you have a flag?!" At which point the Natives crumbled
It's not quite clear to me that using a verb "flag (the land)" would make any difference. The consequences of claimed possession are proclaimed rights to processes and activites, such as I can LIVE here, or PLANT here, or whatever, and you CANnot. Whether a noun or verb is used to initiate such processes is immaterial, and lost on no one, regardless of language.
[Moonhawk]
I agree. And "the flag" is a static representation of all that at once (except when "the wind" sends it flagging) -- emblematic, perhaps prototypically so. Oh, plus it encodes a weird (to Natives) assumption that one can "own" patches of our Earth Mother who nourishes us.
[Benji]
Moonhawk goes on to observe
[Moonhawk:] In such a langscape of non-nominalizing (except for teaching, then they're erased), nominalizing languages present challenges for thinking and speaking when learned as a second language.
[langscape, good word!]
[Moonhawk]
Yes, it's quite excellent for the relationship between languaging and viewing-the-world. I got it from Sakej, who was euphoniously offended somehow by my clumsy Germanic-rooted WordWorld, both intended as that field between us and the mysterious vibrational reality (real-ing) outside (Whorf's inside/outside, manifesting/manifested or Bohm's implicate/- explicate realms, seen as complementary, not dichotomous) which in some cases demands habitually that we notice something for later reporting, whether who the dancers were, or "time" for tense, or how you know.
[Benji]
In passing, I call attention to three nominalisations which have no reification implications, 'teaching', 'thinking', 'speaking' -- and then to -ize (or -ise) as a way to make verbs out of nouns.
Indeed! I use 'em all the time, and teach others to. Seems like present participling in general is a good way to bridge verbs and nouns -- the results are tantalizingly ambiguous at times, reminding me of Native languages. And by so doing, of course, I do certainly avail myself of the structuring already available in this wonderfully flexible language we speak and write, showing the influence of thinking on structure.
[Benji]
With respect to content, the difficulty speakers of non-nominalising language have learning nominalising languages and vice-versa does not necessarily imply a difference in conceptualisation, not to mention cognition, but simply using unfamiliar grammatical means to say what they want to say. I don't see this as different in kind from the difficulty speakers of East Asian languages have in remembering to pluralise English nouns, where the plural morpheme is not obligatory in those languages and most often understood with mention.
[Moonhawk]
May I, in casting doubt on your above opinion, offer myself as an example to the contrary, also making myself vulnerable to professional ridicule? During the early '70s, I spent 4 years solid on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation as linguist and administrator for a federal bilingual/- bicultural program. At the end I'd crafted a pretty decent alphabet and writing system, and could pronounce anything I could write like an elder - 'cause I worked mainly with elders. But -- here it comes, and list- member Wayne Leman can attest to this because I trained him into Cheyenne - I couldn't generate appropriate Cheyenne sentences except on the most simplistic level, and often getting a piece wrong!

After four years of doing mainly langage work! Spanish, Latin, and German -- piece of cake! But Cheyenne ... ! I didn't know at that time that Cheyenne Nouns were just temporary fictions for translation purposes, and so voraciously translated noun-filled Algonkian wordlists into Cheyenne for dictionary and learning purposes.

[Benji]
Moonhawk becomes more enthusiastic when Ahmad asks:
[Ahmad:] Is it ever possible to have a 'verb-dominated' theory/science of language?

 [Moonhawk:] Wow -- bingo! Indigenous epistemologies make an entrance for discussion's sake! What, indeed, would, say, an indigenous linguistics look like? Take away the "nouns" and you're really removing the verb's mandatoriness for X-number of NPs -- so take away pronouns as well, focusing on the dancing rather thab the dancers.

Fine, if you want to focus on the dancing, another nominalisation without reification. So far nothing justifies Ahmad's notion of a 'noun-dominated' theory/science of language. As far as I know all Western theories of language make the Verb (looks like I reified) more central than the Noun.
[Moonhawk]
All glossaries of scientific disciplines are nearly exclusively populated with nouns -- for a starter. And just because it comes out as "the dancing" when discussing it in English doesn't mean that's the case in the Native languages I'm discussing. I'm trying to focus on animate processing and relationshipping as prime, with all objects being grammatical fictions.

And, yes, I'm the first to admit that Verb is the powerhouse of EVERY language, including English. But that's not the point I'm trying to make, since that's given. It's more like this: let's call the Verb the Queen (of a matri-local/focal sentence-domain?), and she has all the power to choose how many NPs she will dance with -- in English, one (sleep), two (kiss), or three (give) as Royal Object-Dancers. What is new, I believe, in the "talk all day long and never utter a single noun" claim is a new option for the Queen: she may dance habitually by Herself, except for calling in her Object-Dancers to teach and explain; then she imperiously sends them away and goes back to using the vectoring we call "pronouns" again.

[Benji]
Moonhawk continues:
[Moonhawk:] At the Bohmian Science Dialogue ("The Language of Spiritualiy 2") in Albuquerque this summer, a Blackfoot speaker told us what the prefixes we call "pronouns" (looking for them through our Latin Grammar len) in Blackfoot really are from their point of view: there's no 'me' -- only a coming toward or going away from (me). How could we have listened to them so badly for centuries? All NPs are optional.
The term "optional" suggests that the NP referents are understood, and simply do not have to be obligatorily expressed, not even by pronouns -- although it is not clear that the prefixes referred to do not function as "pronouns", regardless of Latin.
[Moonhawk]
Not so fast -- that's a misinterpreting of my "optional," which I hope I've cleared up by now. While it may be optional structurally, its use is culturally proscribed to be outside of daily talk -- so it is certainly NOT recoverable in that sense, according to the Natives, who themselves must occasionally interrupt for clarification.
[Benji]
The more interesting case, as implied by Moonhawk's interest in processes and activities, would be if the NP referents did not even have to be understood. In that case, what are the speakers talking about -- and how long could they really sustain a conversation? That is a serious question if the topic of conversation is about events or processes rather than "things".
Congratulations for arriving here! It's a very different langscape! And ..."we can't help you with that problem until you admit that you have a problem! ;-) Which you now have, so let the healing begin! ;-)

Seriously, Benji, not many linguists have opened their minds wide enough to let that be a serious possibility, so your arrival is a joyous occasion. Doesn't mean you believe it -- just willing to entertain it as a possibility. How, indeed, do they do that? We need to let them tell us.

[Benji]
Moonhawk continues:
[Moonhawk:] So instead of simply "verb-dominated," I'd take it further to "relationship/process-oriented" in order to have even more fun.
I quote this to justify my characterisation of "Moonhawk's interest in processes and activities" -- and I find it difficult to see how any knowledgeable person could think that Western scientists, even linguists, are less interested in that than anyone else, if they really understand what they're DOing. [Perhaps that's the implication of M's further remarks; see later comments]. I do not follow the point of his subsequent remarks until we get to:
[Moonhawk:] Now, given that worldview, which is also inclusive rather than exclusive of the rest of Nature, what would "linguistics" look like? For sure it would have a larger-than-human focus on its subject matter, language, showing what we share with other Life as well as what is unique about us. Its preoccupation would be "diving for roots" -- linguistically, epistemologically, and ontologically. Especially because each and every statement would have to obey the inexorable grammatical requirement of validity markers -- HOW do you know what you're stating? You experienced it? heard about it? common knowledge? dreamed it? thought it up? etc.
Here I think M has the obligatory evidential markers of many Amerind languages in mind.
[Moonhawk]
My bad! Lapsus Mentis, or some such.
[Benji]
In this case I agree that grammar may have a determining effect on understanding, if not cognition, to the extent that obligatorily requiring a choice among evidential options affects at least the hearers's awareness of the evidential basis upon which a statement is made. For example, if one must mark as "hearsay" rather than knowledge from direct experience "Homer wrote the Iliad", one is aware of the level of authority the speaker claims for the statement. Similarly, the speaker's compulsion to claim a level of authority in selecting an evidential marker probably makes him/her more aware of the different sources and bases of such knowledge than is needed by the casualness which English (among others) allows in making knowledge-based statements.
[Moonhawk]
How excellently stated!
[Benji]
Against this is Sapir's observation that Takelma speakers tend to present myths as if they directly experienced the events related. It is then a matter of levels of belief and not specifically of experience.
[Moonhawk]
In societies living in what Owen Barfield called "original participation," they WERE kinesthetically reliving that *teaching* ("myth" has conflicting meanings) and thus directly experienced the events related. This is what it means to speak a kinesthetic- rather than visually-based language. Sahaptinn speakers sing an ancestor's song and by so doing kinesthetically relive looking East from atop the Rockies and seeing the Great Inland Lake that disappeared 6-8000 years or so ago. I can understand the mysery.
[Benji]
Of course, some English speakers who say "Homer wrote the Iliad" may really believe that too. For most speakers such a statement is no more than an expression of conventional knowledge, and they have little interest in the truth of statement beyond that. It would make little difference to them if it came to light that somebody else wrote the Iliad, whether or not that person was also named Homer.
[Moonhawk]
Yes indeed. When it comes to survival and life-saving information, however, it might be more crucial to know HOW someone knows what they're telling you.
[Benji]
[Moonhawk:] My, my! How different linguistics conferences and writings would be then!!
Here, in my view, but probably not in M's, it does seem that he is saying that linguists are not aware of what they are talking about.
[Moonhawk]
Actually, it was an oblique reference to the Great Eskimo Snow Vocabulary and Whorf Hypothesis Hoaxes characterized by sloppy scholarship, the unforgivable academic sin.
[Benji]
I have no idea whether that's true or not; I only know that I can often translate what they're saying into "phenomenological" terms, and get insights (I think) in the process. That's good enough for me.

 Behind the idea that linguists are not aware of the phenomenological basis of their interests,...

[Moonhawk]
(with which I wholeheartedly agree, having studied with Dryfus at Berkeley)
[Benji]
... I suspect the stereotype that linguistics and other sciences reify phenomena and then take the reification seriously, as if the main object of science is to reify phenomena and then lose sight of the fact that the objects they have created are based on phenomena, and become preoccupied with classifying the reifications. Linneas would be a proto-type of this view of science, and the perception would confuse the strategies scientists use to understand the relationships among phenomena with the appearance of "static" classification -- classification of what?
I couldn't have said it better, and am reminded of Whorf's discussion of 'Coon cats and projecting the word onto reality.
[Benji]
Ahmad asks:
[Ahmad:] If yes, is science universal or culture-bound? If no, does it mean some cultures are more 'science-compatible' than others?
As Moonhawk answers, the answer to the first question is that science, as we understand it in this culture, is indeed culture-bound. It has culturally derived and enforced norms. However, since science is a prestigious activity he then takes a larger view and recognises that Western science is one manifestation of a universal quest for knowledge, not actively practiced by all individuals but no doubt by some individuals in all cultures. I certainly agree with this. Furthermore, all culturals take advantage of new knowledge when they find it useful -- or necessary. Whether there is anything wrong with the constraints on Western science in principle, rather than in practice, is another question that does not surface in the discussion.
[Moonhawk]
Excellently summarized. We would find few nouns in an Indigenous Science glossary, were one to exist. (How's that for a safe statement?!) ;-)
[Benji]
As for the second question, it should be clear that I do not see what that has to do with different types of languages. Among less 'science-compatible' cultures we hear about in history are such ones as Medieval Vatican culture, among others. (Here I think it is clear that Ahmad intended the term 'science' in the usual narrowly Western sense.) Certainly there was no inherent difference in the language of the culture that burnt Giordano at the stake, or put Galileo under house arrest and the language of such victims. To be fair though, the victimising culture did not suppress these individuals for their scientific activities or thoughts, but for their use of those thoughts to challenge the authority of the dominant culture -- and so it goes on through the more recent American "creationism" controversies, etc. The Spanish Inquisition attempt at total mind control is a more extreme example, and cannot by no means be attributed to the Spanish language. In sum, I see no evidence that language type played any role in allowing one culture to reach the moon before others, or that language rather than language-independent culture made anyone want to. But I concede there is still room for debate here.
[Moonhawk]
Wonderful! And here's one for your side: this summer a Blackfoot woman told of an elder listening to her and her peers speaking Blackfoot who exclaimed, "You're not doing it right!" She was referring to the use of dichotomous thinking migrating from English use being overlaid on the thinking and structure of Blackfoot.
[Benji]
I am far from an anti-Whorfian, as my remarks on evidentials should bear out. I wish more concrete examples of that sort were given -- and even that one had been made explicit. I am simply objecting to inaccuracies concerning the characterisation of nouns and nominalisation in "nouny" languages.
[Moonhawk]
Then let's together find unobjectionable ways of getting at this thorny nut (?!) which has until now avoided public discussion.
[Benji]
I end now by thanking Moonhawk for his stimulating and provocative ideas, perhaps more provocative than he intended them to be.
[Moonhawk]
I appreciate it. When ya go fishin', ya never know ahead of time what ya'll catch!
[Benji]
I am familiar with some of his ideas from previous List discussions, and I see from his latest offering that he has continued to think about them and to further refine them. I hope that my comments are of further stimulation to him, and to Ahmad, and all the other readers of this message. -- Benji
[Moonhawk]
I can vouch they were for me -- and they forced me to push the envelope a little more to explain what I've been hearing from Native America over 30 years. I'm honored to dialogue with you, and hope we spur others to think about these matters a little.